I.6: What Would a True Jeffersonian Democracy Look Like?

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what is jeffersonian democracy

Thomas Jefferson wanted America to be a bottom-up multi-layered republic.

In other words, he wanted citizen decision-making power at all levels. That is to say, true sovereignty would exist in local communities, counties, states, and the nation. That should be the definition of the phrase “Jeffersonian democracy”. But what America has is a top-down system controlled by the national government. We say that our state governments are sovereign, but they’re in fact subordinate. And then our counties, cities, and local communities have no sovereignty at all, except whatever the nation and states choose to bestow upon them.

Jefferson wanted the local communities, which he called “wards”, to have authority equal to that of the states and the nation. Furthermore, he wanted all authority to ultimately rest on each individual citizen, with the power to work together with other citizens to limit all governments. He wrote:

The elementary republics of the wards, the county republics, the state republics, and the republic of the Union, would form a graduation of authorities…. … Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the state who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a [Napoleon] Bonaparte. (Jefferson 1816a)

If Jefferson had been in the Constitutional Convention, he would have pushed for a Jeffersonian democracy. That is, he would have wanted more control by the people at large.

For example, he wrote:

[W]herever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that when things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights. (Jefferson 1789)

[W]hat country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. (Jefferson 1787)

Hannah Arendt, a modern political scientist, wrote that Jefferson, more than any other founder, understood that the freedom Americans gained in their revolution really only gave total freedom to their representatives. She wrote further that this understanding caused him to feel “antagonism against the Constitution”. (Arendt [2000] 2003, 509)

Jefferson believed that true democracy meant every generation had the right to create its own constitution:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them, like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. … Let us [not] weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself and of ordering its own affairs. (Jefferson 1816b)

Do you think Jefferson’s views of democracy and the U.S. Constiution were dangerous? Or do you think they were wise?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Arendt, Hannah [2000] 2003. On Revolution. London: Penguin Books.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1787. Letter to William Smith on Nov. 13. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/105.html (Accessed Nov. 25, 2018)

Jefferson, Thomas. 1789. Letter to David Price on Jan. 8. National Archives. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-14-02-0196 (Accessed Nov. 25, 2018)

Jefferson, Thomas. 1816a. Letter to Joseph C. Cabell on Feb. 2. American History. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/letters-of-thomas-jefferson/jefl241.php (Accessed Aug. 11, 2017)

Jefferson, Thomas. 1816b. Letter to Samuel Kercheval on July 12.” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-10-02-0309. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 10, May 1816 to 18 January 1817, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 435–436.]

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